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Jailing of Mentally Ill Has Turned US Prisons into 'Inhumane' Asylums: Study

As state psychiatric facilities shut their doors, people with severe mental illnesses are being locked in U.S. prisons and jails, finds report

Cell at the Brecksville Police Department, Brecksville, Ohio (Photo: Andrew Bardwell / Wikimedia Creative Commons)

There are ten times more people with severe mental illnesses in U.S. jails and prisons than in state psychiatric hospitals, and conditions of incarceration—including abuse and denial of care—are causing the health of this vulnerable population to decline even further.

This is according to a damning study, The Treatment of Persons With Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails (PDF), released Wednesday by the Treatment Advocacy Center—a non-profit organization that seeks to eliminate barriers to mental health care.

The report argues that decades of cuts and closures of state psychiatric hospitals have transformed jails and prisons into the modern-day asylums.

According to the study, there are 356,268 people with serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, currently locked in U.S. prisons and jails. In 44 states and the District of Columbia, the report states, "a prison or jail in that state holds more individuals with serious mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital."


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While locked up, people with mental illnesses face a litany of horrors that can include: abuse, denial of care, physical attacks, overcrowding, and "[r]elegation in grossly disproportionate numbers to solitary confinement"—factors that are causing the severity of this population's mental illnesses to grow. "The consequences of putting mentally ill people into prisons and jails are often tragic," states the report, leading to disproportionate suicides among the population.

The report argues that high rates of incarceration for mentally ill people mark a return to the policies of the 1770 to 1820 period in the U.S., during which mentally ill people "were routinely confined in prisons and jails"—practices that later came to be regarded as "inhumane and problematic." Yet, while, "[h]alf a century ago, such reports would have elicited spirited public discussion and proposals for reform; now they elicit a collective public yawn," reads the report.

"This is scary and brutal," Isaac Ontiveros of prison abolition organization Critical Resistance told Common Dreams. "Once again it should be very clear imprisonment is devastating to individual and public health."

"The best places for people to get health care they need is in their communities," said Ontiveros. "If we want to invest in the health and well-being of communities and the people who make them up, we have to prioritize programs and services in those communities and deprioritize incarceration, criminalization, and policing."


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